The working class is central to any project for revolutionary change. Yet today strikes are at an historical low. How do we help transform the bitterness at the base of society into action?

workers united banner

The working class has to be central to any serious project for revolutionary change. That is because, in a modern industrial society like Britain, the working class a) forms the great majority, b) produces the wealth of society, c) is concentrated in large workplaces, and d) has the potential power to cripple capital and the state. Quite simply, workers, and workers alone, could one day overturn the system and remake the world. As students, protestors, activists, whatever, we can make a difference – but, on our own, we cannot break the power of the corporations and the nation-states of global capitalism. Only as workers do we have that potential.

Yet, in Britain at least, the working class is a sleeping giant. Despite 25 years of racketeering ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, despite credit crunch and financial crash, despite growing inequality, unemployment, stress-loads, and bullying, most workers are keeping their heads down. Strikes are few and usually no more than token protests. Much more common – even as bankers pocket seven-figure bonuses and politicians charge taxpayers to maintain their mansions – is workers accepting more work for less pay in the hope of holding onto their jobs. The bitterness at the base of society is palpable. But it is not organised and militant. It remains a sullen, murmuring, resentful, but passive discontent.

Turning this anger into action is the key to the transformation of British politics. An attempt to understand how that might be done is the subject of what follows.

The changing shape of the working class

At the time of the 1926 General Strike, there were around a million miners in Britain. During the 1984-85 strike, there were less than 200,000. Today, there are fewer than 4,000. By contrast, 250,000 people are now employed by Tesco’s and 850,000 work in call-centres. Between 1978 and 2005, the number working in service industries increased from 14.8 million to 21.5 million, while those in manufacturing fell from 6.9 million to 3.2 million. An ever-rising proportion of workers are ‘white collar’ as opposed to ‘blue collar’. There are almost as many women in the workforce as men. There are larger numbers of part-time, temporary, and home workers. Such changes have been heralded as ‘the end of the working class’. This conclusion is false (1).

It is not simply that some of the trends – such as the rise in part-time, temporary, and home working – have been grossly exaggerated. More important is that the significance of the changes has been completely misconstrued. Class is a social relationship structured by economic exploitation and political domination. It is irrelevant to one’s class position whether one works down a coal-mine or in a call-centre: in either case, as a worker, to earn a living, one sells one’s labour-power for less than the value of the wealth it creates, and the ‘surplus-value’ is then appropriated by the rich and big business.

This is not rocket science. Yet the tired old argument that ‘we are all middle class now’ is endlessly recycled. In the 1930s, it was because people had council houses, gardens, radio-sets, and hire-purchase furniture (2). In the 1960s, the ‘embourgeoisement’ of ‘affluent workers’ was attributed to high wages, privatised life-styles, television, and enthusiasm for DIY (3). Now, commentators like Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee point to the burgeoning number of white-collar workers, service professionals, and IT specialists to substantiate a perception of society as an inverted pyramid, with a basic two-thirds/one-third division, that is, a majority ‘middle class’ and a depressed minority of unemployed, part-timers, and low-paid unskilled workers (4).

A right-wing variant of this theory posits the existence of a dangerous minority ‘underclass’, poor through their own failure, and prone to anti-social behaviour, disorder, and crime, necessitating tough laws, strong police, and a world of CCTV cameras, gated estates, and burglar alarms (5).

The truth is that we live in a society in which the old social inequalities have become more marked, not less. During the neoliberal era (1979-2008), the rich have got richer – much richer – and the working class relatively poorer (6). So far from society being an inverted pyramid, 1% own about a quarter of the wealth, 5% about half, and the top 20% about three-quarters. This accounts for the political and business elite and the solid middle class. The rest, about 80% of the population, form the working class – irrespective of whether they are men or women, blue-collar or white-collar, car workers or sales assistants, full-time or part-time, on fixed contracts or temporary ones (7).

That the composition and character of the working class is ever-changing has been axiomatic for revolutionary socialists since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, writing in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, spoke of ‘constant revolutionising of production’ under capitalism:

‘The bourgeoisie [the capitalist class] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…(8)

What this implies is the decline of old industries, regions, jobs, and skills, and the rise of new ones, such that the working class is endlessly reconfigured to serve the changing needs of capital.

To talk of ‘embourgeoisement’ or ‘the end of the working class’ is therefore highly misleading. Britain is as much a class society today as it was 25, 50, or 100 years ago. That this simple fact is often obscure reflects not a social transformation, but a political one: in essence, the weakness of the British working class after 25 years of defeat and retreat.

There is huge potential for upsurges of mass struggle in the near future. Such struggle will be essential if humanity is not to pay a terrible price for the compound crisis of global capitalism that characterises the present epoch – a potent cocktail of economic slump, climate catastrophe, imperialist war, and fascist threat. Anti-capitalist revolution, in this context, is not an abstraction: it is a living possibility and necessity.

But to fight for revolutionary change, activists need to assess the balance of class forces and develop appropriate strategies. The starting-point has to be sober analysis of some hard realities. Five issues are of particular concern here: a) the effects of the employers’ offensive against the unions between 1979 and 1989; b) the decline of trade unionism since the 1980s; c) the way in which neoliberalism has restructured the labour market since 1979; d) the transformed relationship between trade union bureaucracy and workplace union reps; and e) the political vacuum created by the virtual collapse of both Social Democracy and Stalinism. The combination of these five factors has inflicted considerable damage on the organisation, consciousness, and confidence of the working class.

On the other hand, there has been an extraordinarily powerful and sustained ‘political upturn’ since the Seattle demonstration of 1999, including the biggest global protest movement in history, and a sustained series of giant demonstrations in Britain. The combination of the two – a weakened labour movement alongside a powerful protest movement – creates a highly contradictory situation filled with both dangers and opportunities.

I first consider in turn the five ‘hard realities’. I then discuss how they are likely to intermesh with the political upturn, and the implications of this for socialist strategy.

The bosses’ offensive: the defeat of organised labour

Changes in the physical composition of the working class since the 1970s have been matched by dramatic shifts in union membership, political consciousness, workplace organisation, and rank-and-file confidence and combativity. To grasp the extent of this, we must review the history of the class struggle in Britain over the last 40 years.

Between 1969 and 1974, Britain was convulsed by a series of massive class confrontations, as capitalists launched a series of major attacks on wages and workplace organisation, provoking powerful resistance from a highly organised and militant working class movement forged in the Great Boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

Full employment during the Second World War and the Great Boom meant that employers faced labour shortages, workers could move relatively easily from job to job, and the bargaining position of trade unionists was very strong for a long period. It was therefore possible to build powerful workplace organisation based on the sectional strength of individual groups of workers. With capitalists desperate to keep production lines running to maintain output, workers were able to make major gains through short, local, unofficial strikes (or the threat of them), topping up nationally agreed rates through ‘wage drift’. Between 1919 and 1926, a typical strike averaged 32 days duration per worker involved; in 1953-64, the average was just 3 days (9).

The essential basis of workplace organisation was the existence some 300,000 workplace union reps (10). Many reps were organised in workplace combines, many in wider networks able to co-ordinate action across local workplaces, even entire industries or cities. Because the reps were workers elected by and accountable to other workers in their own section, they were direct representatives of the power of the rank and file at the point of production, able to challenge the dictates and prerogatives of capital inside the workplaces. It was the workplace union reps, rooted in workplace sectional militancy and organised in rank-and-file networks, who constituted the dynamic core of the workers’ movement.

As British capitalism entered a period of crisis in the late 1960s, this movement came under sustained attack. At first, the workers responded with mass industrial and political strikes, smashing the 1970-74 Heath government’s pay controls and anti-union laws. Crucial to this response – which involved workers transcending the ‘sectionalism’ and ‘economism’ inherent in the rank-and-file movement in industry – was the influence, especially on young workers, of the radical ideas generated by, amongst other things, youth culture, student struggles, the women’s liberation movement, the Irish civil rights campaign, and, above all, the protests against the Vietnam War.

The ‘political upturn’ both preceded the mass strikes and then continued in parallel with them. Political activists often doubled as workplace militants. The example of direct action proved infectious. Protests and strikes were mutually reinforcing. The result was that the generalised ruling class offensive of the late 60s and early 70s was met by generalised working class resistance as industrial militancy and political upturn fused to create the most powerful wave of struggle for half a century.

With the failure of both the previous Labour government’s In Place of Strife legislation and the Tory government’s Industrial Relations Act to break rank-and-file organisation, the new Labour government elected in 1974 adopted an alternative strategy. Direct attacks on workplace organisation had provoked militant resistance. The new approach involved enlisting the union leaders as allies in an attempt to incorporate the workplace union reps and de-activate the rank-and-file movement. The effect was to weaken the working class at the point of production and thus prepare the ground for a renewal of frontal attacks on union power in the 1980s.

With the support of leading ‘left’ union leaders Jack Jones (TGWU) and Hugh Scanlon (AUEW) – ‘the terrible twins’ – the government unrolled a ‘Social Contract’. In return for union ‘wage restraint’, there would be government welfare spending. Policing the Social Contract meant disabling the rank-and-file movement. The method adopted was co-option. In the TGWU, for example, Jones pushed for lay representatives of the union to be given official status. But with ‘rights’ came ‘responsibilities’: the workplace reps, if they were to retain official support, had to operate within the framework of official union structures and policy (Richard Allday, pers. comm.).

Most workplace militants accepted, even welcomed, incorporation into the union apparatus. This reflected the political influence of ‘left reformism’. The Labour Left and the Communist Party dominated workplace politics, and this translated into a preoccupation with replacing ‘right-wing’ leaders with ‘left-wing’ ones. One corollary of this was a willingness to become part of the apparatus oneself. Instead of working to build a confident, self-reliant, well-organised rank and file, the best militants were co-opted into the union election machines of left-talking candidates.

Tony Cliff, a leading revolutionary socialist, writing as early as 1975, warned of the dangerous direction in which workplace politics was moving, arguing for a rank-and-file movement that would make ‘a decisive change: from putting pressure on union leaders to action in spite of these leaders’, and stressing that rank-and-file workers should ‘distrust completely the trade union bureaucracy, whether right or left’ (11).

It was not to be: an entire generation of workplace militants was herded into the corrals of collaboration. Reps increasingly saw their role as representing ‘the union’ (that is, the official bureaucracy) rather than the rank and file, and as limited to arguing interpretations of national agreements or statutory requirements rather than mobilising the membership as an independent force. From this, it was a short step to viewing rank-and-file activity as an inconvenience, a hindrance, even a danger to ‘good industrial relations’.

The case of Derek Robinson, Communist Party convenor of shop stewards at the British Leyland car plant at Longbridge, illustrates the change. When government wage controls were challenged by a toolmakers’ strike at the plant, the scabbing which broke the action was authorised by the Leyland shop-stewards themselves, loyal to the spirit of the Social Contract. The damage to the solidarity of the rank and file was permanent: when the bosses came for ‘Red Robbo’ in the early years of the Thatcher government, he was sacked without effective resistance from what had been one of the most militant workforces in Britain (12).

The breaking of the rank-and-file movement in the late 1970s constituted a decisive shift in the balance of class forces in Britain. Consequently, under Thatcher (1979-90), the bosses were able to mount a full-scale offensive against the unions, taking on one group of workers after another in a series of set-piece battles.

The enthusiasm, determination, and solidarity of the workers often blunted the offensive, and, on occasion, came close to turning the tide. The resistance of the miners in 1984-85 was astonishing: around 150,000 men and their families stuck it out for a year in the face of mass impoverishment, vicious police violence, and the relentless hostility of the entire British establishment. They were supported by a network of miners’ support groups and donations from hundreds of thousands of trade unionists across Britain.

But, like the steelworkers and health workers before them, and the printers and dockers afterwards, the miners went down to defeat (13).

New Tory anti-union laws came into their own. Without a strong rank-and-file movement, able to operate independently of the officials, taking whatever action was necessary to win, the union bureaucracies were able to impose their own agenda of compliance with the law to protect the apparatus from sequestration of funds. The result was that anti-union laws were able to achieve their basic purpose of derailing workers’ resistance.

Each defeat weakened the working class further, undermining the confidence of the rank and file, strengthening the grip of the officials: a self-feeding cycle of defeat, retreat, and bureaucratisation. Threatened by aggressive employers backed by a ‘strong state’, the rank and file looked to their reps for protection. The reps, no longer buoyed up by their own sectional strength and chastened by the defeat of the miners and other key groups, embedded themselves more deeply in the lower tiers of the union apparatus and leaned more heavily on the support of full-time officials. The stage was set for an historic decline of union power.

The decline of trade unionism

Trade unions are, at root, organs of class struggle. They express workers’ resistance to exploitation under capitalism. They grow when workers are fighting back and winning victories, but stagnate or decline when the level of class struggle is low. Big increases in union membership have usually coincided with big upsurges in class struggle and political radicalisation. In the Great Unrest before the First World War, union membership rose from 2.6 million to 4.1 million. In the explosion of militancy immediately afterwards, it reached 8.3 million. Between 1947 and 1963, there were never less than 9 million union members, and in the subsequent upsurge of struggle the number rose to a peak of 12 million by the late 1970s (14).

Unsurprisingly, union membership has fallen by approximately two-fifths over the last 30 years (15). The old industries with strong union membership built up in earlier periods of struggle have declined. Workers in the new industries have not been won to the unions by the example of successful militancy. The derailing of the rank-and-file movement of the 1970s followed by the set-piece union defeats of the 1980s have undermined workers’ confidence and combativity.

Despite this, union membership has tended to hold up where it already exists, probably because workers feel the need for protection when the bosses are on the offensive. But the advance into new territory has been limited. It is probably mainly for this reason that union density today stands at around 60% in the public sector, where there tends to be greater stability in the structure of the labour force, and at less than 20% in the private sector (16).

If the working class had simply changed in composition, as it has done continually throughout the history of capitalism, it would not necessarily have been weakened. Call-centre workers could become militant trade-unionists just as car-workers and miners have been in the past. During the great post-war boom, as old industries declined and new ones developed in ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’, trade union membership remained steady at a high level (and a strong rank-and-file movement developed). Workers in ‘new industries’ like car-making were among the most militant. White-collar workers in the public sector unionised and took action for the first time. The crucial factors were full employment and job security on the one hand, and the confidence and combativity of the rank and file on the other. Because unionised workers fought back, they made gains. Because of this, other workers joined them in the unions.

Since 1990, this has not happened. The date is significant: it was the last occasion when the annual total of working days ‘lost’ in strikes approached 2 million (17).

We must not exaggerate the decline. At between 7 and 8 million, total union membership is only marginally below that of the 1950s and 1960s. At 31% of the workforce, the proportion of workers unionised is higher than that before both the Great Unrest of 1910-14 and the post-First World War upsurge of 1919-20. With an estimated total of 160,000 workplace union reps, the ratio of reps to members is only marginally lower than in the 1970s. When unofficial industrial action erupted at the Lindsey oil refinery in January 2009, it was led by a network of shop stewards, supported by militant union members (18).

On the other hand, the decline, both quantitative and qualitative, is real. Official statistics show that a clear majority of modern British workers are not unionised. Many workers in new industries and many young workers have no experience of trade unionism at all.

Equally, the low level of strikes and the atrophy of workplace organisation mean that the significance of union membership is much diminished. Fighting unions involve participation and activity, and they generate a culture of commitment, solidarity, and loyalty. Passive unions fail to do this. Unite, with almost 2 million members, is the biggest union in Britain. Its members face a jobs massacre unprecedented since at least the early 1980s. Yet a national mobilisation for a ‘March for Jobs’ in Birmingham, one of the union’s industrial heartlands, on 23 May 2009 attracted just 7,000 workers (19).

To understand the hollowness revealed in Birmingham, we need to review the strike statistics (Table 1). An army which neither trains nor fights ceases to be an army. The strike rate is the principal measure of the fighting strength of the labour movement. For the last 20 years, it has remained stuck at its lowest point for a century, averaging just 0.7 million strike days per year for both the 1990s and the 2000s.

Table 1: Historical pattern of Strike days ‘lost’

Date Period Average annual strike-days (millions)
1900-1910 4.6
1911-1913 Great Unrest 20.9
1914-1918 First World War 5.3
1919-1921 Post-war upsurge 49
1922-1925 12
1926 General Strike 162
1927-1932 4.7
1933-1939 Great Depression 1.7
1940-1944 Second World War 1.8
1945-1954 Beginning of Great Boom 2
1955-1964 Middle of Great Boom 3.9
1965-1969 End of Great Boom 4
1970-1974 Heath government 14.1
1975-1978 ‘Social Contract’ 7.2
1979 ‘Winter of Discontent’ 29.5
1980-1983 First Thatcher government 6.3
1984-1985 Great Miners’ Strike 16.8
1986-1990 Third Thatcher government 3.3
1991-2000 0.7
2001-2007 0.7

These figures should be compared not just with high points of struggle – 20.9 million strike-days a year in 1911-13, 49 million in 1919-21, or 14.1 million in 1970-74 – but with past low points. During both the Great Depression and the Second World War, the strike rate was between two and three times higher than during the last 20 years.

In some respects, the situation is even worse than the bare statistics imply. The small, short, unofficial strikes that predominated in the 1950s and 1960s were often not recorded at all, whereas such ‘invisible’ wildcat action has been much rarer in the last 20 years. By contrast, bureaucratic token strikes (highly visible and well recorded) have been the norm. They are often industry-wide and involve large numbers of workers, but they do not reflect either sectional strength or rank-and-file organisation. The change is reflected (though understated) in the strike figures: we find that in 2007 the average number of workers involved in any particular strike was 7,300, whereas during the period 1955-64 it was only 1,500, barely a fifth as many (20).

On the other hand, the anti-union laws may have distorted somewhat the accuracy of the strike rate as a direct measure of working class combativity. A strike ballot is frequently a substitute for a strike: it allows bosses and bureaucrats to measure the temperature and cut a deal accordingly. In recent years, strikes have often been threatened but not called, even after strong votes for action.

What is certain is that the historically low strike-rate of the last 20 years does not mean that ‘strikes are a thing of the past’. The power of workers is in the workplace, and the main way of exercising that power is to withdraw labour, halt the process of production, and strike directly and immediately at profit. Strike action is therefore the principal weapon of a fighting working class. The old weapon has become rusted in its scabbard. It must be forged anew.

Privatisation, profit, and wages

The success of the employers’ and government offensive unleashed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 depended on a series of victories in open class warfare against steelworkers, miners, printers, dockers, and others. These victories, in turn, depended upon the disintegration of the rank-and-file movement of the 1970s and the incompetence of bureaucratic leadership in the 1980s. Each defeat lengthened the retreat, lowering rank-and-file confidence, increasing dependence on the bureaucracy, creating the conditions for further defeats.

The gains for the ruling class have been spectacular: with the strike rate at rock-bottom for 20 years, a major neoliberal restructuring of the labour market has taken place. The effect has been to redistribute wealth substantially from labour to capital, that is, from wages and welfare to profit, and to weaken materially and morally the ability of workers to fight back.

A combination of privatisation, subcontracting, and outsourcing has fragmented and disorganised large swathes of the working class. The growth of casual, part-time, insecure ‘McJobs’ has allowed employers to drive down wages, increase work-rates, tear up terms and conditions, side-step national agreements, and cut costs on national insurance, holiday pay, sickness benefit, and pensions.

Privatisation and casualisation are flip sides of the same coin. ‘Flexible labour-markets’ are designed to allow employers to raise the rate of exploitation at the expense of workers. The Visteon dispute in the spring of 2009 illustrated the way in which corporate giants like Ford can offload obligations to their own employees by ‘outsourcing’ to phoney companies.

Ford created Visteon in 1997 and then transferred various of its components plants to this new company. In 2000, Ford and Visteon formally separated, and Visteon went on to establish a series of further companies, all nominally independent of each other, including Visteon UK. In 2005, Ford announced its ‘Way Forward’ plan, pushing its outsourcing model into overdrive. By 2009, Ford had halved its global workforce of 70,000 through a mix of cutbacks and outsourcing. The 600 Visteon UK workers were among the victims, when Visteon announced the closure of its three plants in Enfield, Basildon, and Belfast, and Ford proclaimed that it had no obligations to the workers involved since it was not their employer (21).

In the case of Visteon, the workers fought back (using the militant tactic of factory occupation), exposed the scam, and forced Ford to pay proper redundancy money. Much more often, workers find themselves atomised, disarmed, and screwed. Even when they fight, they fall foul of anti-union laws designed to protect subcontractors against ‘secondary’ action.

The Gate Gourmet catering workers went down to defeat at Heathrow Airport in 2005 despite a magnificent unofficial solidarity-strike by British Airways ground staff. Gate Gourmet supplies in-flight meals to British Airways. If the union leaders had sanctioned further action by British Airways staff, the Gate Gourmet workers could have defeated a union-busting subcontractor and strengthened the position of all airport workers. But the union leaders would not countenance this because such action would have been ‘secondary’ and therefore illegal, putting at risk the union funds which support the apparatus (22).

The employers benefit directly from the lower wage-costs of the flexible labour-market. They also benefit indirectly. The enlarged ‘reserve army’ of unemployed and casually employed, including a good proportion of migrant workers, acts as a drag on the confidence of full-time, permanent, ‘core’ workers. This is not to argue that there has been a wholesale shift in the structure of the workforce: full-time, permanent employment remains the norm. But a somewhat enlarged periphery of marginal workers – casual, short-term, insecure, poorly paid, badly treated – constitutes an implicit threat that workers may ‘price themselves out of a job’.

Neoliberal restructuring of the workforce has contributed substantially to the weakening of union power and a consequent redistribution of wealth from labour to capital. There are numerous measures of this. In the decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, for example, the salaries of top company bosses roughly doubled, while those of workers increased at only half this rate (23). The share of national income received by the poorest tenth of the population fell from 4.2% in 1979 to 2.7% in 2002 (24). Between 1981 and 1998, spending on domestic service quadrupled to £4 billion annually, and ‘much of this was concentrated in households at the top of the income ladder and in London’ (25). And so on. Whatever the measure, the gap between the elite and the working class yawns wider.

Officials, stewards, and rank and file

If, as Marx argued, the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class, what is the role of trade unions, the traditional mass organisations of workers as workers, in the class struggle? This question has exercised socialists for 150 years.

One of Tony Cliff’s many contributions to Marxism was his theoretical exploration of the relationship between full-time union officials and rank-and-file union members, and the implications for revolutionary socialist activists. His principal work on the subject, written with his son Donny Gluckstein, was Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: the General Strike of 1926.

Lenin had made an important distinction between what he called ‘trade union’ consciousness and ‘socialist’ or ‘revolutionary’ consciousness. The former involves an understanding that workers need to organise and fight to protect themselves against exploitation by their employers. But it does not necessarily involve support for wider political campaigns, let alone any aspiration to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism; trade union consciousness is essentially ‘economistic’ and limited to what has sometimes been dubbed ‘DIY reformism’ – workplace-based action to secure immediate gains (26). This self-limiting ideology is institutionalised in the permanent bureaucracy of full-time trade union officials.

Cliff developed further insights into the nature of the trade union bureaucracy. He recognised two main divisions within the unions, that between ‘left’ and ‘right’ leaders, which he considered secondary, and that between the officials as a whole and the rank and file. The ‘left’ officials, in whom rank-and-file militants, including the (then revolutionary) Communist Party, had invested high hopes, helped to sell out the General Strike. Cliff’s conclusion was clear:

‘… rank-and-file workers – whether reformists, centrists, or revolutionaries – have a common interest in opposing and overthrowing the system (whether they are aware of it or not). In contrast, union bureaucrats – reformist, centrist, or verbally revolutionary – have a common group interest which means they must confine workers’ struggle within the system. Reformist workers can become revolutionaries through struggle, officials cannot. The proof is 1926.’ (27)

The division between officials and rank and file, not that between ‘left’ and ‘right’, is therefore the primary one:

‘The left/right split among union leaders may at times be exploited to take the fetters off rank-and-file action. But this split must be understood as internal to the bureaucracy. Despite the differences between left- and right-wing officials, they form a common social group. Workers, too, hold a variety of opinions, yet are of a single class. It is the clash of interest between the bureaucracy and rank and file that overrides any superficial similarities between, say, a left union official and a militant worker.’ (28)

The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct layer defined by social role, social position, and social conditions; these, in combination, set it apart from the workers it exists to represent. Its role is to negotiate the terms of the contract by which labour-power is sold to capital. Its position is constituted by membership of what is essentially a middle-class career hierarchy. And its members usually enjoy considerably better pay, terms and conditions, fringe benefits, pensions, and job security than ordinary workers. One study, based on interviews with hundreds of officials, found that ‘most full-time officers rate themselves among holders of middle-class posts (and rate their general secretaries close to the top of a scale of social standing) …’ (29).

The life-and-death priority for all union officials is the survival of the bureaucratic apparatus of which they are part. That is why anti-union laws that threaten the apparatus (with sequestration of funds) – rather than the rank and file – are so effective. It is also why the bureaucracy is liable to be especially reactionary in a period of capitalist crisis. When the system is booming, it can afford concessions. When it crashes, it cannot. The behaviour of a bureaucracy committed to the system’s survival is bound to reflect these simple facts.

A sharp distinction must therefore be made between what are sometimes called ‘united fronts’ as opposed to ‘rank-and-file movements’. A united front is an alliance between revolutionaries (or anti-capitalists) and reformists (Labour MPs, trade union leaders, prominent campaigners, cultural figures, etc). The purpose is to unite as many people as possible in the struggle for agreed, but limited, political objectives – an end to war, action on climate change, resistance to spending cuts, or opposing racism and fascism. The need for such alliances arises from the fact that most workers are not revolutionaries (or anti-capitalists) in ‘normal’ times; it is therefore easier to involve them in struggle if the leaders and organisations to which they traditionally give allegiance are included.

‘Broad left’ campaigns in the unions are of this kind. They are united fronts formed of revolutionaries and left-reformists who agree their union should be more radical and militant. Their main activity is contesting union elections with the aim of dislodging right-wing leaders. Broad lefts are therefore, in effect, alliances between trade union officials (or, at least, would-be officials) and rank-and-file militants.

This sort of campaigning can make a real difference. No serious activist can doubt that the RMT is a more militant union for the leadership of Bob Crow and the PCS for that of Mark Serwotka. Or that the Stop the War Coalition has been strengthened by the support of such left-wing union leaders as Jeremy Dear (NUJ), Billy Hayes (CWU), and Paul Mackney (UCU).

Cliff’s argument was not that the split between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the unions did not matter; it was that the split between bureaucracy and rank and file was the decisive one. Consequently, revolutionaries should not attach the same significance to broad-left campaigns in union elections as they do to rank-and-file activity. On the contrary, they should aim to build rank-and-file activity a) as a means of exerting pressure on the bureaucracy, and b) as a means of acting independently of the bureaucracy when necessary – irrespective of whether it is formally under left-wing or right-wing leadership.

The proper attitude of revolutionaries to the bureaucracy is that encapsulated in an oft-quoted formulation of the Clyde Workers’ Committee in 1915:

‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately and according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.’ (30)

The Clyde Workers’ Committee represented a militant rank-and-file. So did the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions in the early 1970s (see next section). For the most part, the estimated 160,000 union reps in British workplaces today do not; they represent a largely passive, disengaged, unorganised rank-and-file. Instead, for more than 30 years, a process of incorporation has been underway, whereby reps are given formal status within the union apparatus and encouraged to operate as lay representatives of the bureaucracy inside the workplaces.

Veteran socialist militants have noticed the changes. Employers and officials have worked hand-in-glove to remove virtually all major negotiations from the shop floor, reducing the ability of reps to influence pay, terms of employment, or conditions of labour through workplace activity. Instead, reps are encouraged to attend union training courses, where they are developed as lay officials. Unite, for example, runs courses for ‘lay companions’, who are seen as back-ups or stand-ins for full-time officials in disciplinary/grievance procedures. Casework, not collective action, is the essence of the modern workplace union rep’s role. The tendency is to mimic the modus operandi of full-time officials, acting in a formal, legalistic, procedure-bound way, hardly ever attempting to draw upon the potential power of the rank and file (Richard Allday, pers. comm.).

Though reps carry a burden of union administrative duties and casework loads, there are also benefits, most importantly, time off the job to attend to union business (‘facility time’), but perhaps, too, a certain kudos from the position, with its official responsibilities and the recognition it earns from both management and union full-timers. Little wonder that reps are sometimes seen ‘as a cross between workers and management’ by the disengaged rank and file they represent – a symptom of what one socialist shop-steward has described as ‘a whole generation without social cohesion, without a tradition of solidarity, thinking as individuals not part of a collective’ (Russ Ball, pers. comm.).

Marx distinguished between a class ‘in itself’ and a class ‘for itself’, the one an objective reality wherever one class exploits another, the latter a subjective matter, dependent on the degree to which a class is self-aware, organised, and engaged in struggle (31). Class ‘for itself’ has been eroded by a long period of defeat, downturn, and neoliberal reconfiguration of the workforce. A significant feature of the decline has been a series of subtle changes in the relationship between officials, reps, and rank and file; changes that defy easy measurement, but which constitute micro-mechanisms working deep inside the class that go far to explain whether there is resistance or resignation.

Lay union activists – workplace reps and local branch officers – do not constitute a distinct social layer in the same way as full-time officials. They remain workers, and therefore have a class interest in rank-and-file struggle and socialist revolution. They are much closer to the rank and file, and therefore reflect shifts in mood more immediately and sharply than does the trade union bureaucracy; and if they fail to do so, being subject to direct election in the workplace or local branch, they can easily be replaced. Activists elected by fellow workers to represent them in the workplace can never become entrenched reactionaries.

What is true, however, is that the 160,000 workplace union reps in Britain today are often relatively conservative and passive, reflecting the pull of the full-timers, the weakness of the rank and file, and the bureaucratic formalism of modern union practice. There are countless exceptions. Many reps are among the most radical and militant people in their workplaces; often, too, they are the people most active in the protest movement. But many others – ground-down, rule-bound, pessimistic – have so internalised the mindsets and routinism of the union apparatus that they are prone to act as a conservative barrier to ‘wildcat’ action, to ‘illegality’, to breaches of ‘procedure’.

The decay of reformism

In the 1970s, the politics of the workplace were dominated by the Labour Left and the Communist Party. This was problematic. Under the Social Contract in the mid-late 1970s, it facilitated the incorporation of workplace union reps, the growth of class collaboration, and the disintegration of the rank-and-file movement. This paved the way for the great union defeats of the 1980s. Mass revolutionary socialist politics would have offered much more effective resistance to the ruling class offensive against workplace organisation.

However, in the absence of such politics (the revolutionaries being a tiny minority), mass left-reformist politics were better than no politics at all. They provided an ideological and organisational glue to a rank-and-file movement that might otherwise have remained highly fragmented. The downside of the strong sectional strength built up during the Great Boom was the danger of ‘economism’: the idea that all you had to do to defend working class interests was maintain workplace organisation. This would have been inadequate to meet the employers’ and government offensive that opened in the late 1960s: a general political attack demanded a united working class response. In such circumstances, better revolutionary politics than reformist politics, but better reformist politics than no politics at all.

The political upturn of the late 1960s infected the workplaces with radicalism. But equally, the traditional reformism of working-class militants was a vital element in the upsurge of struggle between 1969 and 1974.

When the Labour government published its anti-union In Place of Strife White Paper – threatening workers with fines for taking action without holding secret strike ballots or before the end of ‘cooling-off periods’ – the TUC general secretary thought the unions had been ‘let off very lightly’. Not so the rank and file.

On 1 May 1969, the Communist Party-dominated Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) was able to stop the national press, pull half a million workers out on strike, and organise a 25,000-strong demonstration in London (32). When the Heath government returned to the attack with its Industrial Relations Act the following year, the LCDTU called a conference attended by 1,750 delegates from 135 shop stewards’ committees and 300 trade union branches. This conference’s call for a national strike was again supported by half a million workers (33).

A pattern had been set for what was to follow. In the big set-piece confrontations of 1971-74, socialist militants were able to activate wider rank-and-file networks to deliver strikes and solidarity, building resistance from below which compelled the trade union bureaucracy to abandon collaboration and authorise action or risk losing control of its members.

Jack Jones, ‘left’ leader of the TGWU, for example, reneging on a commitment to defy the Industrial Relations Act, had gone to court and paid fines. But when five London dockers were jailed, and protest strikes spread from the docks to the print and then to lorry-drivers, engineers, construction-workers, Heathrow airport workers, and London busworkers, Jones told the TUC General Council that if they did not do something, unofficial elements would take over. The TUC called a one-day general strike – and the government capitulated (34).

In the early 1970s, the Communist Party had 30,000 members and a raft of leading industrial militants in the mines, the shipyards, the car-plants, and elsewhere. But its reformist politics led it to tail ‘left’ union leaders, support the Labour government, and police the Social Contract. The contradiction between its rank-and-file industrial base and left-reformist practice plunged it into deep crisis in the late 1970s. It splintered into fragments and its membership plummeted: it has never recovered (35).

Equally dramatic has been the virtual disappearance of the Labour Left as a major current in working-class politics. The downturn in the industrial struggle, the sense of having been betrayed by right-wing leaders, and the fear and loathing inspired by the new Thatcher government created the conditions for an upsurge of the Labour Left in the 1980s. Industrial militants sought an electoral fix. Defeat reinforced this tendency even as general politics shifted to the right. Examples are the campaigns around Tony Benn’s Labour leadership bid in the early 1980s and that around the Militant-led Liverpool Council’s defiance of rate-capping in the mid 1980s.

The situation today is starkly different. The traditional Left, with illusions in both Stalinism and Social Democracy, has been profoundly disorientated by the ‘fall of communism’ in the East and ‘reformism without reforms’ in the West. The Communist Party no longer exists as an industrial force. The Labour Left is virtually invisible, a mere handful of figures without any forces, reflecting the wider organic crisis of the Labour Party (36).

We can illustrate the scale of the meltdown with a series of snapshots. In 1945, the Labour Party had almost a million members and took almost 50% of the popular vote in the general election. By the late 1970s, the party’s membership had fallen to about a third of a million, and its share of the vote to 37%. Membership continued to fall through the 1980s and early 1990s, down to 265,000 by 1994. General election vote shares in this period were 28%, 31%, and 34%. The Blair ‘blip’ pulled the party back up to 407,000 members and a 43% share of the vote in 1997. Since then, we have seen catastrophic collapse: Labour’s membership hit an all-time low of 177,000 in 2007 (37).

In the 1970s, most British workers were influenced by local labour movement activists organised in shop stewards committees, trade union branches, trades councils, constituency Labour parties, Communist Party branches, and various campaign groups. ‘Labourism’ was hegemonic in the British working class – that is, a majority of workers had some form of basic class consciousness that involved support for reformist ideas like redistributive taxation and welfare spending, and an identification with the Labour Party and the trade unions as embodiments of such aspirations.

Today, the local infrastructures of Labourism are so degraded that this hegemony has broken down. Moreover, during and since the 1970s, many newly unionised workers, like teachers and council workers, have found themselves fighting Labour governments and local authorities. For them, Labourism has never had much appeal. It is this hollowing out of local labour movements that makes the British National Party today much more dangerous than was the National Front in the 1970s.

This decay of mass reformism and local labour movements has left a political vacuum inside the British working class. Different forces now compete to fill this space: forces of both Left and Right.

Four factors, however, should give the Left cause for optimism. First, the decline of Labourism is not the same as the decline of ‘welfarism’. Opinion polls show continuing strong support for the basic constituents of the welfare state, like the NHS, council housing, and decent benefit payments. Second, there is deep, sullen, part-submerged bitterness about privatisation, growing inequality, and the (accurate) perception that society is dominated by a corrupt, self-serving political and business elite. Third, the financial crash has blown away all that remained of neoliberalism’s flimsy claim that privatisation and corporate power held out the promise of a golden age of prosperity for all. And fourth, there is the way in which the political upturn of the last decade – the anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-climate change movements – has wrought a much deeper radicalisation among a substantial minority, particularly of young people.

There is, then, a sharp contradiction between the decline of traditional working class organisations on the one hand, and an accumulation of combustible material at the base of society on the other. There is a complex mix of disengagement, bitterness, and radicalisation. It can be seen in big events and small ones. Take the case of Hazel Blears’ car. A corrupt neoliberal politician, Blears was out canvassing on a rundown estate in her Salford constituency when her car had its tyres slashed. She maintained it was routine vandalism. The BBC were unable to find any local resident who would confirm this. Instead, their reporter was told that Blears was hated and everyone knew it was her car. No-one – except Blears – seemed put out by the incident.

There is trouble brewing for our rulers in the depths of society. But it will not find easy expression in the hollowed-out institutions of the traditional labour movement.

The last decade has seen the emergence of a global protest movement on an unprecedented scale. This remains the key link in the general political situation we face. This movement is a direct response to neoliberal economics and neoconservative warmongering. The anti-capitalist and anti-climate change campaigns are popular responses to the way in which profiteering has ridden roughshod over human welfare and environmental protection. The anti-war movement is a response to the murderous use of military power by a declining imperialist hegemon and its satellites.

The economic crisis will make matters worse. As capitalists struggle to compete and survive, there will be more attacks on workers, more environmental degradation, and more wars. All the evidence is that this will provoke further mass protests.

Academic research at Nottingham Trent University has shown that alienation from mainstream politics, emptied of substantive content by neoliberalism’s ‘democratic deficit’, has been paralleled by a steady rise in protest action and anti-capitalist sentiment.

Only 37% of young people voted in the 2005 British General Election. This reflects ‘disenchantment with Westminister politics’ and the fact that ‘young people have a deep antipathy to, and are roundly sceptical of, the political agents who dominate the political process’.

But it does not indicate political apathy. On the contrary, the researchers found most young people committed to democracy, many concerned about a range of global issues, and a minority ‘interested in a new style of politics … that is more participative and direct’ (38).

Other studies have shown a rising proportion of people taking part in demonstrations or identifying themselves as radicals. A notable example is a World Values Study which reveals that the proportion of 15-29 year olds in Britain who rate their politics as far left rose from 2.3% in 1990 to 6.3% in 2006 (39).

The trend is clear: alienation from the political elite and an unrepresentative parliamentary system; and a rise in protest and anti-capitalist sentiment. This is the backdrop against which we should assess the ups and downs of the movements.

The demonstration of between one and two million in London on 15 February 2003 was, of course, the great highpoint. But there have been a number of other Stop the War demonstrations which, by most historic standards, have been colossal: one of 400,000, and several of 100,000 or more. At the beginning of 2009, moreover, the Israeli attack on Gaza brought huge numbers onto the streets, not just in big national demonstrations, the largest 150,000 strong, but in local protests in scores of ordinary towns.

The mobilising power of other protest campaigns has (so far) been more modest. Yet, in December 2009, we witnessed a demonstration against climate change at least 50,000-strong, perhaps 100,000, and one that was overwhelming young and extremely vibrant. This, combined with the size and militancy of the demonstration in Copenhagen a week later, implies that a major new front of the anti-capitalist movement has been opened.

The impact on the workplaces has been huge. At the outset, on the streets of Seattle on 30 November 1999, a ‘teamsters and turtles’ alliance was forged. Since then, a significant minority of workers have been radicalised by the protest movement. The biggest demonstrations, notably those across the globe on 15 February 2003, have involved hundreds of thousands of workers, many of them marching in organised union contingents with branch banners.

This radicalisation of workers has had its reflection in the internal politics of the trade unions. In Britain, many right-wing union leaderships inherited from the 1990s have been overturned with the election of an ‘awkward squad’ of left-wing figures. This shift symbolises the contradiction between political upturn and continuing industrial downturn: a minority of union members has been actively involved in the protests, and a majority is opposed to privatisation, war, and New Labour; but workers do not have the confidence to organise and fight themselves, looking instead to ‘left’ leaders.

The central question for revolutionaries therefore becomes: how to make a reality of ‘political trade unionism’; how to infect the working class further with the militancy of the movements; how to use the political radicalisation to spark industrial struggle; how to realise Rosa Luxemburg’s vision in The Mass Strike.

Anti-capitalists and the working class

In normal times, only a minority of the working class is revolutionary. A majority, at best, have what Lenin called ‘trade union consciousness’. It is for this reason that he argued in What is to be done? that the minority of revolutionaries needed to be organised into a political party and to fight for influence over the class.

He did not mean – as the argument has sometimes been caricatured – that socialism would be brought to the workers from the outside by middle-class intellectuals. On the contrary, most Bolsheviks were workers, embedded in the class; but they were an organised minority working to win their fellows to class consciousness and resistance.

Sometimes, it was an uphill struggle, and only ones and twos could be won through long, hard argument: the emphasis was on ‘propaganda’ and a slow build-up of revolutionary forces. At other times, during an upturn, whole sections of workers could be won to action and became open to radical ideas: the emphasis then was on ‘agitation’ and mass recruitment of young workers enthused by the struggle.

We should aim high today. This is because, on the one hand, we face a compound crisis of the capitalist system on the scale of that of the 1930s, and on the other, we are living in a period of mass political protest comparable with that of the 1960s. The combination of economic slump, climate change, and imperialist war, all rooted in an underlying crisis of competitive capital accumulation, threatens global catastrophe and a descent into barbarism.

Yet, on every front, there is protest and resistance. The job of socialists is to plug the militancy of the protestors into the discontent of the wider working class, thereby transforming an active minority into an active majority and building a mass movement powerful enough to challenge capital and the state. The essential mechanism for achieving this is the united front.

The revolutionaries are a small minority. We are far too few to act as an effective transmitter of political radicalism into the workplaces. The united front has to be central to any serious attempt to link the movements and the workers. The Stop the War Coalition (StWC) is a stunning example of a successful united front, one in which revolutionaries have always played a leading role, despite being a relatively small minority within it, helping to build and shape a movement which has organised the biggest demonstrations in British history.

The revolutionaries in StWC constitute a small but dynamic cog at the heart of the machine. Transmitting their energy and radicalism to the hundreds of thousands who have been mobilised by StWC required intermediate cogs – the networks of other activists represented by local StWC groups across the country. This mechanism is equally applicable to other areas of work. Notable examples from the post-war history of Britain are the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Anti-Nazi League, the Miners’ Support Groups, and the Anti-Poll-Tax Campaign.

Four major issues confront the working class today: the impact of the economic crisis; the imminence of climate catastrophe; the war on terror; and the threat of fascism. Revolutionaries therefore need to walk on four legs: we have to be workplace militants, climate activists, anti-imperialists, and anti-racists. In each case, we need mechanisms to connect us with wider layers of activists, and ways of generalising the radicalism and militancy of the political upturn.

But we must set realistic short-term targets. The revolutionaries are, in fact, a very small minority. To grow and have influence, we must group around us the best anti-capitalist activists from the protest movements, and then, working with these, reach out to wider layers of working-class activists in the framework of united-front campaigns.

A microcosm of the way in which political upturn and working class anger can explode into industrial militancy is provided by the dispute at the Vestas wind-turbine factory in Newport, Isle of Wight.

On 28 April 2009, 600 workers were told their plant was closing and they were to lose their jobs. On 20 July, 25 of those workers occupied the administrative block of the threatened factory. Their action became an immediate focus for the local community, for working class militants more widely, and for climate-change activists. Hundreds marched in support, picketed the gates, and challenged a police blockade. A ‘red-green’ encampment of supporters grew up outside the plant. Donations and messages of support poured in from other parts of Britain and beyond. This solidarity undermined initial attempts by bosses and police to break the occupation through starvation and court action. The struggle attracted national news coverage. The Guardian gave it a two-page spread, and, in the light of comparable events elsewhere, asked whether factory occupations ‘from Chicago to Seoul’ might be ‘a global trend’ (40).

Wind turbine manufacture is a new industry. The Vestas factory is located on a modern, edge-of-town industrial estate. The workers were not unionised and had no tradition of struggle. On the other hand, the occupation was not ‘spontaneous’. A core group of young workers started to organise with help from local trade unionists, socialists, and climate activists. More than 100 people attended a trades council meeting on 3 July, where the idea of an occupation was mooted. More than 50 activists held a rally and collected signatures in the centre of Newport on 12 July (41). Through organisation, campaigning, and argument, a group of young workers with no tradition of class struggle found the confidence to fight for the right to work in defiance of bosses, police, and the law.

There is nothing special about Vestas: it is like thousands of new factories on modern industrial estates across Britain. If young workers with no union tradition can take action here, the same could happen anywhere. But the Vestas occupation was also the result of deliberate political intervention by ‘outside agitators’ – organised socialists and climate-change activists. They brought the experience, the ideas, and the promise of solidarity that gave the workers the confidence to act. They injected a large, and very potent, dose of politics into an industrial dispute. The Vestas struggle is rich in lessons: it reveals in microcosm much about the shape of the working class today, about the crisis of traditional labour organisations, about the relationship between workers and unions, and about the centrality of politics to contemporary class struggle.

We cannot second-guess which issues and campaigns will prove decisive. We certainly should not assume – as Vestas reveals – that a narrowly-defined ‘economic crisis’ will necessarily provide the primary battleground, nor that some long-awaited ‘industrial upturn’ – a sustained series of mass strikes over economic issues – is the precondition for serious advance by the Left. The present historical conjuncture is characterised by: a) a compound crisis of the capitalist system, with economic, ecological, military, and politico-ideological aspects; b) a traditional labour movement hollowed out by neoliberalism, industrial downturn, and the collapse of Social Democracy and Stalinism; and c) a multi-faceted, but essentially anti-capitalist, global protest movement.

Given this, it seems likely that mass working-class action will arise in the future more from the influence of the movements than from the leadership of traditional labour organisations, and that general political issues will more often be the prime mover than immediate economic grievances. Certainly, a mechanical ‘workerism’ that regards official union politics as the sine qua non of socialist endeavour – as if bank bailouts, climate change, the war in Afghanistan, and the rise of the BNP are not as much the concern of workplace militants as of other activists – is to be avoided. As gateways to the working class, united-front campaigns around political issues are of central importance: these are the organisational forms most likely to energise the workplaces.

It is also for this reason that the colleges represent a key link for socialists. The colleges are at the cutting-edge of both the economic crisis and the protest movement. There are four times as many students today as in the 1970s: 2.7 million in total. In many areas, the local university is the biggest workplace around, employing thousands of lecturers, administrators, and support staff, and educating tens of thousands of students. And many colleges are facing massive cuts, with departmental closures, mass sackings, course closures, and lost educational opportunity.

The month-long strike at Tower Hamlets College in East London in autumn 2009 is one illustration of the potential. The UCU union group at the college had a recent tradition of anti-imperialist solidarity work. New activists came to the fore and played key roles during the dispute. The local community rallied around the strikers in defence of an important public service, and donations flowed in from UCU union groups across the country. It was not just an ‘economic’ strike about jobs: it was also a political strike about public services led by union activists politicised by the war on terror. The strike ended with an outright victory (42).

The wave of student occupations against the Israeli attack on Gaza early in 2009 provides another illustration of the potential in the colleges. This amounted to the most militant student action in Britain for a generation. It revealed both the politicisation of a minority of students and the volatility of the campuses as arenas of struggle. Overall, in the past year, many tens of thousands of young people have joined protests against the Israeli attack on Gaza, against the G20 meeting in London, against climate change, and against the BNP.

These politicised young people are in the front-line of the economic crisis. Many students are at college because of poor job prospects. Many, when they leave, will get no job at all or only a dead-end ‘McJob’. Youth unemployment is soaring. One in five people in England aged 18 to 24, a total of around a million, are now unemployed (‘neets’: not in education, employment, or training). This figure is set to rise further, and mainstream commentators are talking of a ‘lost generation’ similar to that of the 1980s, when total unemployment peaked at 3.2 million (43).

Students, young workers, the unemployed: it is among the hundreds of thousands of young people hammered by the global crisis and radicalised by the protest movement that we are most likely to find the militants who will lead the next upsurge of class struggle. Where they are concentrated in large numbers – where they can be organised and mobilised – is in the colleges. Here, moreover, the cuts are already biting hard – even before the record-breaking public-expenditure reductions with which we are threatened after the general election.

The colleges contain an explosive mix of political radicalisation, budget cuts, and frustrated youth: as both giant campuses and giant workplaces, as places where the political movements and the class struggle can fuse and ignite most easily, they are likely to be at the centre of mass struggle in the period ahead.


The British working class, that sleeping giant, has fought no major battles since the Poll Tax Revolt. For 20 years, the strike rate has been at its lowest in a century. The traditional class organisations of British workers are stiff in the joint. The Labour Party has been rotted by neoliberalism. The revolutionaries remain a small minority. Millions of new workers have no experience of union struggle or socialist politics.

On the other hand, bitterness and anger are widespread. But this can take different forms. If it is educated and directed, it can erupt into class struggle. If not, it can morph into racism and fascism. The Lindsey dispute of February 2009, with its mix of militant industrial action and racist slogans, pointed towards alternative futures.

It is the job of revolutionaries to intervene to spark resistance, spread solidarity, and direct the bitterness and anger towards united class struggle from below. To do that, we need to build united fronts in which revolutionaries and reformists work together, in which networks of local activists are created, and in which a new tradition of militant class-based resistance is forged.

The aim must be to turn the brooding anger and alienation of millions into mass action. The aim must be to rouse a sleeping giant.


Richard Allday, Russ Ball, Ady Cousins, Lindsey German, James Meadway, John Mullen, Chris Nineham, John Rees, Mark Smith, Alex Snowdon, and Vladimir Unkovski-Korica have all contributed ideas and criticisms during the development of this paper. I am grateful to all of them. I am wholly responsible for the paper’s final content.

Notes and references

1. Smith, M., 2007, ‘The shape of the working class’, in International Socialism, 113, 49-70. See also German, L., 1996, A Question of Class (London, Bookmarks) for an effective demolition of theories about ‘the end of the working class’.

2. Dobbs, M., 1963, Studies in the Development of Capitalism, London, Routledge, 348.

3. Goldthorpe, J. H., Lockwood, D., Bechhofer, F., and Platt, J., 1968, The Affluent Worker: industrial attitudes and behaviour, Cambridge, CUP, passim.

4. Smith, M., 2007, ‘The shape of the working class’, in International Socialism, 113, 49.

5. German, L., 1996, A Question of Class, London, Bookmarks, 43-49.

6. Harvey, D., 2005, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, OUP, 16-17.

7. German, L., 1996, A Question of Class, London, Bookmarks, 10-11.

8. Marx, K. and Engels, F., 1973, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Fernbach, D. (ed.), The Revolutions of 1848: political writings, Vol. 1, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 70.

9. Cliff, T., 1975, The Crisis: Social Contract or socialism, London, Pluto, 132-133.

10. Known as ‘shop stewards’ in many industries, alternative terms are also used, especially in white-collar jobs, so I have employed the generic term ‘workplace union reps’ or just ‘reps’.

11. Cliff, T., 1975, The Crisis: Social Contract or socialism, London, Pluto, 153, 156.

12. Whitehead, P., 1985, The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies, London, Michael Joseph, 396.

13. The single best account by far is Callincos, A. and Simons, M., 1985, The Great Strike: the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and its lessons, London, Bookmarks.

14. Pelling, H., 1976, A History of British Trade Unionism, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 293-296.

15. Kimber, C., 2009, ‘In the Balance: the class struggle in Britain’, in International Socialism, 122, 39.

16. Harman, C., 2008, ‘Snapshots of union strengths and weaknesses’, in International Socialism, 120, 79-80.

17. The figures used in this section have been compiled from R. Hyman’s Strikes (1977, London, Fontana), and the Employment Gazette and Social Trends (both Office for National Statistics publications).

18. Harman, C., 2008, ‘Snapshots of union strengths and weaknesses’, in International Socialism, 120, 77-90; Kimber, C., 2009, ‘In the Balance: the class struggle in Britain’, in International Socialism, 122, 33-64.

19. ‘Workers on the march against jobs massacre’, Socialist Worker, 23 May 2009, 5.

20. Kimber, C., 2009, ‘In the Balance: the class struggle in Britain’, in International Socialism, 122, 38.

21. ‘Ford-Visteon: the making of a scandal’, Socialist Worker, 25 April 2009, 8-9.


23. Rees, J., 2006, Imperialism and Resistance, London, Routledge, 105.

24. Mason, P., 2009, Meltdown: the end of the Age of Greed, London, Verso, 128.

25. Rees, J., 2006, Imperialism and Resistance, London, Routledge, 106.

26. This distinction is central to Lenin’s argument for a revolutionary party in What is to be done? (1902); there is a handy summary discussion in Cliff, T., 1986, Lenin, 1893-1914: building the party, London, Bookmarks, 79-82.

27. Cliff, T. and Gluckstein, D., 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: the General Strike of 1926, London, Bookmarks, 293.

28. Cliff, T. and Gluckstein, D., 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: the General Strike of 1926, London, Bookmarks, 294.

29. Quoted in Cliff, T., 1975, The Crisis: Social Contract or socialism, London, Pluto, 121.

30. Quoted in Cliff, T., 1975, The Crisis: Social Contract or socialism, London, Pluto, 149.

31. The clearest illustration of this idea is in an oft-quoted passage describing the French peasantry in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (it can be found, for example, at Callinicos, A., 1983, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, London, Bookmarks, 143-144). Lindsey German provides a good summary of the contemporary implications of this idea in A Question of Class, 1996, London, Bookmarks, 77-89.

32. Harman, C., 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after, London, Bookmarks, 229-230.

33. Harman, C., 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after, London, Bookmarks, 237.

34. Harman, C., 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after, London, Bookmarks, 248-251; Whitehead, P., 1985, The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies, London, Michael Joseph, 77-80.


36. Kimber, C., 2005, ‘Labour’s organic crisis’, in International Socialism, 106, 101-111.


38. Henn, M., Weinstein, M., and Forrest, S., 2005, ‘Uninterested youth? Young people’s attitudes towards party politics in Britain’, in Political Studies, Vol. 53, 556-578; Henn, M. and Weinstein, M., 2006, ‘Young people and political (in)activism: why don’t young people vote?’, in Policy and Politics, Vol. 34, No. 3, 517-534; Henn, M., Weinstein, M., and Hodgkinson, S., 2007, ‘Social capital and political participation: understanding the dynamics of young people’s political disengagement in contemporary Britain’, in Social Policy and Society, 6:4, 467-479.


40. ‘A factory sit-in that turned into a battle over the UK’s green future’, The Guardian, 25 July 2009, 6-7.

41. ‘Vestas: the story of the struggle’, Socialist Worker online, 1 August 2009.

42. ‘All-out strike beats the cuts’, Socialist Worker, 3 October 2009.

43. ‘Lost generation fear as young jobless rate soars’, The Guardian, 19 August 2009, 4.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.